The Bluffer's Guide
David Sylvian



in the early 1980s, David Sylvian was a pop idol, whom the papers called “the most beautiful man in the world.” Now, he’s a semi-reclusive, avant-leaning musician who’s worked with the likes of Holger Czukay, Derek Bailey, and Christian Fennesz. His career path has been a rollercoaster ride of unlikely twists and turns that continues to surprise and innovate with each new dip and curve. But through it all, he’s maintained that distinctive croon and a sense of adventure that defies logic and sales charts. Each release is a new world, but still bears his fingerprints regardless of how far off the beaten path he may go.

So how can one get an overview of such a mercurial artist? Where do you start? The key to following David Sylvian is to know that there are no true answers to those questions, only suggestions to be made and roads to potentially follow. It’s entirely possible and even somewhat likely to adore Japan’s New Romantic milestone Gentlemen Take Polaroids and loathe Sylvian’s Blemish. But with open ears, Sylvian’s path is full of rewarding milestones, even if they at times bear little resemblance to those around them. This Guide is a chronological look at the enigma, highlighting the transitions, high points, and key collaborations to light a potential path to follow in the hopes that the trip will take the listener on as interesting a journey as Sylvian himself has been on. Listeners are encouraged to find a path they like and wander up it—there’s more where this came from, regardless of which sound catches your fancy.

Japan – “Adolescent Sex” [1978]

When Japan burst onto the U.K. scene in 1978 with their debut album Adolescent Sex and single of the same name, high art was the least likely thing to pop into one’s head. An almost cartoonish cover with cheesy, big-haired renderings of the band members gave way to an album of glammed-up Ziggy-lite poses with little distinction to it save a slight disco edge and some fake names (Sylvian and Japan drummer Steve Jansen are actually brothers, surname Batt). Bass/sax man Mick Karn had yet to develop into a suitable foil for Sylvian, and had the progress ended here (it was a hit in Europe, and fittingly, Japan had a thing for the band), it still would have produced some fun New Wave vs. New York Dolls moments. But while Sylvian and Co. might have looked like preening pretty boys on the album covers (follow-up album Obscure Alternatives, also from �78, is no better, as the photos on that cover looked even worse than the sketchy “portraits” of the debut), they had some real ambition lurking under those shaggy manes. There were experimental moments on both albums, but nothing too memorable and nothing that they would carry with them into future works, save a fascination with all things Asian. You’d hardly recognize Sylvian’s snotty, whiny vocal here as him without a roadmap. But at least the Japanese teens dug it, and so with status comes a little money and a little freedom. Japan took both and ran.
[Listen]

Japan – “Life in Tokyo” [1979]

Fact: Outside of Japan, where they seemingly could do no wrong, “Life in Tokyo” was a flop when it was first released. It was re-released in 1981 and again in 1982, and did well both times, but the first time out of the gate, it was a failure. Regardless, it was to that point the most significant thing they had done, as it was recorded in Los Angeles in collaboration with the legendary Giorgio Moroder. On the surface, “Life in Tokyo” is a bit Moroder-by-the-numbers, the typical disco/rock he was so efficiently churning out those days, with Sylvian’s now-recognizable coo over top. But the fact that Sylvian was starting to branch out, to want to work with other producers and musicians whom he admired whether it worked on paper or not is significant and would be a hallmark of his career.

As legend has it, when Sylvian came to L.A. he wanted to record one of his own tunes (“European Son,” which would become their next single), but the producer preferred to use one of his own and left Sylvian there with some completed tapes. When Moroder returned, he found that Sylvian had totally re-arranged the tune and had a set of lyrics ready. It was only one song, but that taste of the foreign, the collaboration, had set Sylvian’s mind open at full throttle, and in the next few years, the credibility of Japan grew as exponentially as Sylvian’s ambitions. The scruffy-haired glam days were behind them, and true art and sophistication was their aim, in image and on vinyl.
[Listen]

Japan – “Swing” [1980]

By the dawn of the new decade, Japan’s image had done a 180-degree turn from where they started. Gone were the rock star trappings and guitar riffs, replaced by tailored suits and far more subtle make-up (most of the time). The music had gotten sophisticated, too, as illustrated by this track from Gentleman Take Polaroids, their most critically acclaimed and best received LP to date. Smooth and synth-based, buoyed by touches of exotica and Mick Karn’s rubbery fretless bass, Japan were the prototypical New Romantics and as such finally found success in their native England. In Birmingham, young Nick Rhodes aped Sylvian’s every move (and hairstyle) and formed Duran Duran in his image. “Swing” stands as one of the most accomplished tracks of this era, punctuated by horns and inventive melodic twists.
[Listen]

Japan – “Ghosts” [1981]

Japan’s 1981 swan-song Tin Drum was their most satisfying album and also their most individualistic. Taking the synth-based New Romantic template of Gentlemen and infusing it with a healthy amount of Asian-inspired rhythms and textures, Drum saw the band’s fascination with the Far East turning their style yet again from immaculately tailored Europeans to genuine global citizens. (The cover art of Tin Drum depicts Sylvian eating a bowl of rice (under a picture of Mao, no less), while the stomping “Visions of China” referenced the Chinese military with a jack-boot rhythm.)

The album’s signature moment sounded far more like something Eno might have constructed. Beatless, sparse, long on atmospherics and not much else, “Ghosts” was one of the most unlikely hit singles ever, with synths hanging still in the air like the spirits the lyric references. An elegant, haunting track, “Ghosts” defied the odds and hit the U.K. Top 10, showing that there was no boundary—musical, cultural, or otherwise—that Sylvian wasn’t willing to cross. After a triumphant 1982 tour (and subsequent live document Oil on Canvas, released in 1983), Sylvian left Japan (the band) for Japan (the country) and embraced art, photography, and a whole new outlook on making music.
[Listen]

David Sylvian & Ryuichi Sakamoto – “Forbidden Colours” [1983]

Slow to find his feet as a solo artist, Sylvian instead lent his by-now instantly recognizable vocals to both the 1982 "Bamboo Houses" single and this track from the soundtrack to Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, starring David Bowie and including a score from Sakamoto, whom Sylvian had met a few years prior when he was in Japan with Japan and Sakamoto was with the Yellow Magic Orchestra. The two have been regular collaborators ever since, but this gorgeous orchestral track found Sylvian venturing even further out of the box that others would hope to place him in. Sylvian had shown remarkable growth in just five years of recorded work, and he wasn't slowing down.
[Listen]

David Sylvian – “Weathered Wall” [1984]

Sylvian’s 1984 solo debut, Brilliant Trees didn’t stray too far musically speaking from the final Japan album on first listen, but did feature an upgraded supporting cast. This was still (loosely, at least) pop music, but even more experimental and full of little details, thanks to guest appearances from some of the fringe’s better-known names: Can’s Holger Czukay, Sakamoto, Kenny Wheeler, Mark Isham, and former Japan mates Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri, most of whom have remained regular collaborators through the years. On the moody, midtempo “Weathered Wall,” the instantly recognizable trumpet of Jon Hassell floats through the track like paper caught in wind. Sylvian was starting to experiment more, expanding his already expanded horizons, and still managing to sell some records. His metamorphosis from derivative glam-rock caterpillar to slinky art-rock butterfly was nearly complete.
[Listen]

David Sylvian – “Words with the Shaman Part Three - Awakening (Songs from the Treetops)” [1985]

No longer content with the constrictive parameters of the pop song, Sylvian followed up Brilliant Trees with yet another about-face, the instrumental, cassette-only Alchemy - An Index of Possibilities. Across three parts on “Words with the Shaman,” Sylvian, Czukay, Hassell, Jansen, and bassist Percy Jones explore polyrhythms and sounds of the rainforest. By this point, any resemblance Sylvian bore to the New Romantic figurehead of old had long since passed, his hair now its natural brown at last, his music now not even remotely chart-friendly or pop oriented. More than a few fans lost him at this point, as I’m sure was expected, but as with the rest of his career, trying to predict his next moves would prove a fruitless exercise.
[Listen]

David Sylvian – “Wave” [1986]

Apparently not entirely satisfied with the prospect of making a vocal or an instrumental album, Sylvian instead released the double-LP Gone to Earth featuring one album’s worth of each, aided this time out by avant-guitar virtuosos Robert Fripp and Bill Nelson—”Wave” showcases both of them in fine form. Sylvian’s solo sound was starting to seriously materialize at this point—lush, hushed, textured, complex, often with Jansen’s distinctive percussion and of course Sylvian’s baritone—but his restless spirit kept inviting new players to the mix. As far as formulas go, there are far worse to play by, and since establishing his in 1984 with Brilliant Trees, Sylvian has never made two records that sound quite the same. The pattern of alternating vocal and instrumental releases would continue, as well.
[Listen]

David Sylvian – “The Boy with the Gun” [1987]

Sylvian’s next LP, Secrets of the Beehive took a step back from the Frippertronics of its predecessor into more acoustic territory, somewhere he hadn’t found himself very often in the past. The style suited him, as the album bears the distinct influence of Nick Drake and Scott Walker, and is a quiet, subtle masterpiece. “The Boy with the Gun” is a classic folk tale updated for modern ears, punctuated by swirling strings and an affecting vocal punchline.
[Listen]

Rain Tree Crow – “Blackwater” [1991]

After a pair of collaborations with Holger Czukay featuring side-long, ambient instrumentals (1988’s Plight & Premonition and 1989’s Flux + Mutability), and a standalone single that shamefully sunk without a trace (“Pop Song”), Sylvian took the strange (for him, anyway) step of getting the old band back together, as he patched up with Mick Karn and recorded new material under the name Rain Tree Crow (I bet the Virgin marketing team loved that one...) Relations were still strained, but the album produced a handful of great tunes, “Blackwater” among them, offering a fleeting glimpse at what might have been. As far as reunion records go (think “Free As a Bird”), this could have been far worse.
[Listen]

David Sylvian & Robert Fripp – “Jean the Birdman” [1993]

In a move that should have surprised no one but surely did, Sylvian and Fripp rekindled their relationship forged on Gone to Earth and wrote an entire album together, followed by a worldwide tour (and live album). Also surprising was the fact that these tunes were anything but subtle, featuring some of the heaviest backing that Sylvian has ever lent his reedy pipes to, although this wouldn’t exactly be mistaken for metal. The musicianship is top notch throughout, but the rocking style didn’t really suit either of them long-term, even it was fun for a while.
[Listen]

David Sylvian – “Blemish” [2003]

After another pop album and another ambient project (1999’s Dead Bees on a Cake and Approaching Silence, respectively) and a handful of compilations, Sylvian finally left Virgin Records, his home since 1980, and formed his own imprint, Samadhi Sound. His first release was Blemish, an angular, spacious album marked by collaborations with the late Derek Bailey and Christian Fennesz. The nearly 14-minute title track is the centerpiece, an absorbing listen that shows Sylvian at his most vulnerable and stripped. This is adventurous, ambitious music, marked with more noise and less structure than anything he has touched since “Ghosts.”
[Listen]


By: Todd Hutlock
Published on: 2007-01-11
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